January 23, 2003

Women's Work: The First 20,000 Years, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber

I originally bought this book when it was first published in paper in 1995. It bored me to tears at the time and went the way of some books--to the used bookstore for resale. However, sensibilities and interests change. Recently, I was browsing the books at the local yarn shop, picked this back up, read a few pages and plopped my money down. Then I took it home and read it cover to cover in nearly one sitting.

Barber attempts to show the development of cloth and clothing and how it relates to women and society in general from the Paleolithic up to the late Iron age. Her first postulation is that clothing and cloth manufacture have always traditionally been done by women because of the need for flexible work that can be picked up or put down as the demands of nursing an infant and toddler require. She then traces the development of cloth from the simple string skirt of fertility rights to the more elaborate clothing and tapestries of the Hellenic cultures. However, since very few fragments of cloth are still extant, she relies quite heavily on the remaining tools and artwork left behind when the cultures finally failed. The most interesting discussion in the book concerns the parallel development of vertical warp weighted looms versus horizontal peg looms and how they created different weaving techniques and ultimately different uses for the cloth.

The book isn't for everyone. I am particularly fond of anything that relates to fiber and textile development and for that I found it fascinating. She uses myth as evidence a bit too much for me to buy all her arguments. I also have a hard time completely accepting that women did the spinning, weaving and sewing because they were tied to their nursing children and the men went out to hunt and later to farm because they were not. It seems too clean and simple.

Posted by Deb English at January 23, 2003 03:48 PM